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In Our Town

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Written by Maddie Kate

Estimated reading time — 18 minutes

In our town, you prayed for a boy when you first felt that kick in your belly. Mama said she cried the day I came out of her, she was so happy I’d been blessed as a son. Every birthday was a celebration for us, whole family coming around with sweet cakes and rye whiskey, friends and neighbors filling our back porch. My gramps would bring his guitar, only played on special days since his hands were lost to arthritis. We’d stay up until the stars showed, everyone drinking, my uncles pouring out baby drinks for us young ones in tin cups, everyone laughing in the bonfire light, coyotes howling in the blacktop mountains behind the fence that separated our backyard from the edge of the tree line. Birthdays were a cause for joy, a reminder that sometimes God listened to your prayers, didn’t always make you suffer.

Birthdays for my cousin Lyla were a different affair. She was three and some years older than me. She’d babysit when my parents would go out dancing, as if those three years between us meant much more than the fact she was a head taller and always beat me at hide and seek. She had long strawberry hair our Gramma would brush out in front of the TV for her. Lyla loved watching quiz shows, so sharp she’d always know the answers before they came up on screen. I half-believed her when she’d wave her hands in the air in front of her face and tell me she wasn’t smart, just psychic. Gramma would always shush her and say we shouldn’t joke about such things, but she would wink at Lyla and smile. When I was really small and couldn’t sleep she’d sing to me, old songs about apple trees and drowned lovers, songs her mama sang to her. I could never remember the words. Some nights I’d lie awake in the dark and try singing to myself but the sounds got stuck in my chest, buried too deep to dig out.

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Lyla was also the only one my parents would let take me swimming in the creek round the back of Gramps’ farm where nobody could bother us. My uncles offered time and again but mama always refused, laughing and pouring another beer to pacify their pride, saying they were more likely to drown me than show me how to float. Lyla was the one that taught me to swim, hands ever-patient and holding my head above the water when I went under for too long.

“Swim, Wren. You gotta swim!” she would say as she pulled me to the surface.

On her birthdays, the women would go over in the early morning, sitting around her and her mother, overlapping arms in their cotton print sundresses, offering what little comfort they could, sipping berry wine and praying occasionally, hands all tangled in the wooden rosaries they carved in the winters. Mama would be up the night before baking, sweetbreads and whiskey doughs. My daddy always told me to stay out of the kitchen on baking days. Baking days were just for mama, when she’d get out all her grief and pour it into the food she made for her sister, each dish an apology, a comfort, an acknowledgment of loss. Us men and boys would go over in the evening, sitting silent and smoking around Lyla’s old man and her stepbrothers, tobacco passing between uncles and cousins and all the things that went unsaid. On Lyla’s birthdays, everyone was drinking for a different reason, bittersweet.

In our town, birthdays were a reminder of another year gone. Another year closer to the day they would die. In our town you were only safe once you turned eighteen, down to the hour. In our town once there was blood between your legs, you only had so many summers left.

* * * * * *

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In the old days, my gramps told me it used to just be once every six years. The town would go down to the lake on the last Sunday of the summer, dressed in white or the closest you could get, everyone lining up along the banks to wash their hands clean in the water. And then a name would be drawn. Somebody’s daughter. Sister. Lover. Cousin. A girl next door, a girl you had grown up with. Someone with dreams about seeing the world outside the state lines, someone with favorite songs and best friends and promises to keep. The girl would walk into the lake and would be held by her mama for the last time, the woman she was grown from dipping her low into the water so she shone in the sunlight, skin dripping. She’d smile for her daddy, despite the tears he’d catch with his hands, so he’d remember her well. Then she would start to swim, out into the middle of the water until she reached the other side, the one always lost in the mists even in deep summer. Nobody had even seen the other side, even from the boats. It was something you stayed away from, the current always tugging you back, a warning. And she’d never be seen again.

The thing was, it wasn’t the old days anymore. Gramma told me things started going wrong in the gaps between those six years, just after my parents and uncles and aunts had graduated high school. Lambs being born with the skin around their eyes green, blind from the moment they came into the world. Dogs howling for days on end until their lungs collapsed and they died from exhaustion. People waking up with dead moths covering the floors of their hallways, piled so deep you couldn’t see the carpet beneath them. At first, people just came to accept that something in the trees was changing and for whatever reason was throwing things a little off balance. Then the rains stopped. People began to worry, but put it down to a dry spell and nothing more, despite the fact that the rain came every October without fail, and had done so since people first lived here back in the days of candlelight and wagons, before the trees were tamed.

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Then the cows started milking blood, and the dirt started turning black, swallowing anything planted. And then the babies started being born without their legs, or their arms or their eyes. My uncle Jonah was born legless, momma’s youngest brother. Gramps says it didn’t matter ‘cause he could drink like a man standing up. I liked Jonah best. He was always loud, laughing and cracking jokes that had everyone clutching their sides like their ribs were about to spill their organs on the floor. He had a voice like Johnny Cash and you could tell Gramps was proud when he sang along with his guitar, ‘cause when Jonah sang everyone would forget about his legs a while. But he could be quiet too, could convince birds down from the trees to eat out of his hand. Sometimes I’d catch him looking real sad though, watching me and my cousins playing tag, or watching his brothers dance with their wives.

So Gramma said that six years became four years and it was okay the first time. But then the lake started to dry up. And things started washing up on the shore, baby bones and drowned rabbits with too many eyes. Deer started getting bloodthirsty, running out of the woods with their eyes white and teeth sharp, stealing chickens. People had to stop fishing out on the water because when they would drag up their nets they would be full of snakes. They would toss them back, but a few always made it to shore. One of them found their way into church and bit the preacher right on the wrist. The preacher bashed its head in with his bible. Old folks started sleepwalking at night, lining up on the edge of the lake and waking in the morning with no memory of walking there barefoot, feet all cut up and muddy.

So four years became two years and it was okay the first time too. But people started getting scared to bring their babies into this world and so parents stopped having kids. People started seeing things in the mist. Then the dreams started. My best friend Tommy’s dad was one of those that had the dreams. I went with him to the cemetery a couple of times to visit when we were kids. Tommy always brought one of his power rangers or a race car to leave on top of the grave in case his daddy got bored in heaven, even though there wasn’t actually a body down in the ground. Tommy said he didn’t know what the dreams were about and that his momma wouldn’t tell him. Gramma wouldn’t tell me either but she said the dreams made thirty people real sad, and that they couldn’t stop feeling sad, so they all swam into the lake one day and they didn’t stop until they reached the bottom.

So two years became once a year. And the rains came back, and people started sleeping better, and people started fishing on the lake again. And the flowers grew a little brighter and the air a little warmer, and the high school football team suddenly won every game. The mini-mart that had been on the edge of closing down suddenly sold fruit so good people would drive in from towns over to buy it, cherries like drips of blood, peaches soft enough to be skin and everywhere over town the apple trees heaved with offerings. And yet, families lived in constant fear of having a daughter, like all of them were walking around with hunting knives twist deep in their spines that they just had to bear. Little girls grew up walking around with grief so heavy it would break their back if they had understood what was coming for them when they grew up.

* * * * * *

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It was Lyla’s fifteenth birthday and she was nowhere to be seen. Her momma Clara was crying on a lawn chair, sipping some lemonade she had pressed with me and Lyla the night before, hands sweet with sugar and rind. Clara was my momma’s younger sister but she looked years older, lines pressed into her face from years of holding all that sorrow just beneath the surface. When she laughed though you could see her true age, smile lines softening around her eyes as she grinned, hair coming loose from the tight braid she normally pulled it back in. Lyla loved to make her laugh, was often the only one that could.

Momma and her sisters in law sat around her, long-legged and stretched out in the afternoon sun, a couple of my baby cousins tugging at the bottoms of their frayed jean shorts for attention or hanging off their hips. Daddy sat with my uncle Red, Lyla’s father, hand resting on his plaid-clad shoulder. None of her friends had come to her birthday party and she had run off, heartbroken. The year before last summer, Sky, Lyla’s best friend since the first day of school had her name pulled. None of her friends could face another birthday party that could be any of their last before they headed out across the water, so it’d been a no-show. Candles and cake lay melting untouched dripping off the pine table Red had made way back when, and there was more than just lemonade in Clara’s glass.

But I knew where to find her. I walked to our grandparents’ farm in the low slung sunlight, kicking up dust trails with the tops of my sneakers, scattering the June bugs still sucking on the flowers even though June was long gone. The farm was empty except for the cows. I lowered my head as I passed them, white-bellied with their long eyelashes keeping away the flies. I hated the way the cows watched you pass, eyes all-knowing as they stood so still, all of their heads turning to watch you go. Gramma said sometimes it was best not to look at the cows, just to let them get on with their business. She told me I had nothing to worry for as long as I didn’t turn around once they were behind me. They didn’t take kindly to that. As I walked I could feel them watching me in the heat, grass a hush around my legs as I walked through the fields and past the barn with its peeling red paint.

Lyla was floating in the middle of the creek, hair around her head like strings of bloody flowers. She looked so peaceful with her belly up to the sun, eyes closed and trailing her hands through the lily weeds. I called her name and she didn’t move. Behind me, something rustled in the tall grass, maybe a snake or a rabbit. I called again, voice drunk up by the fields. She was dead I knew, kicking my shoes off and running out to her, ready to push the water from her lungs, bring her back. I fell into the water, throwing my shirt behind me, yelling her name. She flipped over and turned to face me.

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“Wren! Calm down. I was just daydreaming,” she half-smiled, pushing her hair from her face.

I splashed her, sending an armful of the creek over her head.

“You scared me!” she laughed, splashing me back, both of us fighting until we could hardly breathe for laughing and the water in our mouths.

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“Everyone’s lookin’ for you at the party,” I told her. She shrugged and turned to float belly up again, toes stretched out to kick at the butterflies skimming the surface. I joined her, drifting.

We spent the afternoon together, swimming and daydreaming and trying to catch the tiny fish that lived in the mud with our hands. As the sun went down behind the barn and the creek turned cool and green we lay out on the bank in our underwear, letting the sunset warm us dry. Lyla turned to me. The lights in the farmhouse were on, porch lit and beckoning us home.

“You gotta promise me some things, alright? When I’m gone-” I cut her off.

“Where are you going? Can I come?” She didn’t reply, just carried on as if I’d said nothing.

“When I’m gone I need you to promise me you won’t ever go swimming with anyone else. And if you try out for the football team, shower when you get home okay? Don’t ever drink and drive or your daddy will kill you. Be nice to girls but don’t start dating until you’re out of school. Don’t let them get in your pants either. Trust me on that one, us high school girls got nothin’ to lose. Kiss your mama goodnight, listen hard to Gramma when she tells you stories ‘cause most of ‘em are truer than you could ever know. Make Jonah teach you how to get birds in your hands ‘cause he never had the time to teach me and now I’ll never get to know.” She smiled, but it wasn’t in her eyes. Her voice wobbled a little towards the end. “And tell my momma about me every once in a while. You don’t have to do much, just sit with her sometimes and talk. I don’t want her to forget.”

She jumped to her feet then and ruffled the hair on top of my head, messing it up like she had done since we were little. She ran off into the purple dark, long-legged with her hair out behind her. It was the last time I ever saw her.

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The day Lyla was chosen, I was in church with all the other kids who weren’t allowed down to the lake on the last Sunday of summer. Me and Tommy and his cousin Beth were seeing who could run the fastest, racing down the wedding aisle, sunlight streaming through the high glass windows in golden lines, zigzagging between us. Beth was sad that day because her best friend Leanne was allowed down to the lake for the first time, and she was real worried she wouldn’t come back. So I’d let her play tag with us, even though Tommy said girls couldn’t run for shit. I was going to go slower and let her outrun me so she’d feel better. Beth proved us both wrong, beating us every time, so fast we didn’t even have to let her win, could barely keep up as she paced through the pews, hair flying out behind her as Jesus watched us from the cross above the door.

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When my dad came to pick me up, I asked him where mom was as she always came to get me on church days. Daddy said she was with Clara and Gramma and when I asked why he said he’d explain when we got home. We drove home in his pick-up and he let me choose the music the whole ride home.

The house was empty when we arrived, followed by a low sinking feeling in my back teeth I always got before a storm even when the sky was clear. Dad sat me down on the porch and opened two beers, pouring half of one out into the grass before handing it to me. I wondered absentmindedly if the beer would get the worms chewing on the soil drunk. I wondered if they would be too drunk to get home. Dad explained that Lyla had gone. I told him I knew, that she’d told me last week she was going away. Daddy started at that, shoulders jumping like a coyote backed in a corner. He smiled with tears in his eyes, sipping his beer.

“I’m not surprised. That girl always knew what was going to happen. Had your Gramma’s witchy ways about her.” He grinned, shaking his head and brushing a stray tear away with his thumb knuckle. Daddy opened his second beer as he explained that Lyla’s name got pulled and she wasn’t going somewhere you came back from. Boys don’t cry, even when it hurts, daddy always taught me that, but he had cried too so I thought maybe this time it was allowed as I put my head in my hands. Daddy put a hand on my shoulder and let me cry it out as the moon slid slowly out from behind the blacktops, until I felt the whole sky would fill up with all that grief stacked up on our shoulders.

It was two summers after Lyla had gone. I was fourteen, had started high school. Me and Tommy had decided to shave our heads and start lifting weights my uncles let us borrow, determined to be the hardest guys to walk the hallways when we got back. Beth had even done us matching tattoos on the backs of our shoulders with a biro and her momma’s sewing needle, matching crosses, bone turned holy before we’d fully grown. Gramps let me borrow his truck sometimes, and me and Tommy would drive to the McDonalds in the next town over ‘cause our town didn’t have one. Sometimes we’d take the girls with us, impressed by four wheels and the promise of a milkshake, even though they intimidated us a little. Girls in our town were like wild animals. They could drink more than both of us combined, wore their skirts short enough that you didn’t have to imagine that hard what was underneath. When they kissed they were all teeth and hands.

Beth and Leanne grew up fast. Leanne had her tongue pierced and liked to take boys under the bleachers when she got bored. Tommy was one of those boys, came back to me with stories of belt loops and lip gloss stains. Beth said the girls in our town were ticking time bombs that had no idea when they were gonna go off. Beth once kissed me in the back of my daddy’s truck after I’d driven her home, in the winter when snow had turned the mountains into ghosts. She’d asked me to stay and have a smoke with her, said it made her lonely doing it by herself. She’d tasted red, like the cherry wine her older sisters gave her and she undid her winter coat and put my hands inside her shirt. I could feel her heartbeat through my palms. When her hand moved down to the zipper on my Levi’s I pushed her away, gently, remembering Lyla’s warning. She’d cried then, and I’d held her, fourteen and unsure what to do but kiss her forehead do her coat back up. She told me if she was still here when we graduated she was gonna love me forever.

* * * * * *

It was the night before the last Sunday of summer. The sun had all but gone from the sky, leaving town in a hurry. I’d gone to bed early that night, a low sinking feeling in the back of my teeth like the ones I’d get before watching a game our football team would eventually lose. Outside the windows I heard the coyotes start to sing, weaving their voices with the night birds high up in the trees. I could hear the TV on downstairs, drifting upstairs like muffled waves. I dreamt about Lyla running through the purple sky, hair streaming out behind her. I’d had this dream many times before, and each time I ran after her she’d be too fast, leaving me behind. But this time she turned around and stretched her arms wide out towards me. Her voice was slow, like she was talking through a wall, lagging in time.

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“Swim, Wren! You have to swim!” she said, eyes wide as she pointed behind me. I turned as a wall of lake water rushed at me, pulling me under into the deep.

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I woke up sweating, sheets a tangled mess beneath my back. The sky outside was turning blue, streaked up with gold like God spilled something across it. I could hear my heart banging so loud it sounded like it was coming from every direction. There was a wetness between my legs I could feel on the insides of my thighs. I yanked the sheets back and my hand came back red and sticky with blood. I yelled for my momma, convinced I was dying, organs bleeding out through my stomach. My heartbeat was so loud I held my head in my hands. Mom ran into my room. She saw the blood on my hands and collapsed on the ground, knees bending like she was about to pray.

“Jesus, forgive us,” she started to cry. I saw Daddy grab his gun from under the bed and stand at the top of the stairs. “Please forgive us.”

“They’re coming, Lorna, not a thing we can do.” He turned to look at me over his shoulder and something like the seven stages of grief passed over his face faster than I could keep up with. “Wren. I’m so sorry. We thought we could save you.”

The banging was now so loud it was shaking the walls, and as the front door was kicked in I realized it wasn’t my heart at all but the sounds of fists on the walls of our house. Gramps ran up the stairs followed by Gramma who was clawing at his arms, wild, trying to hold him back. He pushed her aside. He looked down the barrel of my daddy’s gun and dad handed it over silently, turning away with his eyes closed as mom screamed at him. Mom jumped from the floor and stood in front of me like she was shielding me.

“Step aside, Lorna.” Mom shook her head. Gramps stepped towards her, pointing the gun. “Don’t think I won’t. It’s the way things have always been, and the way they always must. Step aside!”

“Momma.” I stood, hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her aside to face my grandfather. This was the same man who taught me to drive, the man who gave me my first beer, the man who sat up with me all night during thunderstorms when I was little, sitting under the kitchen table with me as I cowered and telling me it was just God moving his furniture and there was nothing to be afraid of. The same man who was now pointing a gun towards the center of my chest. He was crying, I realized, which scared me even more. I’d never even heard of my Gramps crying, not on his wedding day, not even when Lyla went away. He gritted his teeth and held out a hand towards me.

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“You best come with me, Wren.” So I did.

* * * * * *

We drove to the lake in silence. In the glare of the taillights, I could pick out daddy’s truck following behind. I studied my Gramps, watched his hands on the wheel, the button on his shirt he’d missed, obviously dressing in a hurry. I had nothing left to say to him, so I didn’t. When we got to the water, most of the town was already there, lined up along the lakeside. All the girls were dressed in white, with flowers in their hair. Gramps opened the door. He hesitated and tugged the rosary down from where it hung on the rearview mirror and placed it around my neck. He walked me to the water and everyone stared in eerie silence. It was as if the people in town moved as one, the closer I looked, all of their chests rising and falling at the same time as they slowly raised their left hands to point at me from the crescent they made around the lakeside. Gramps turned to momma, who had come up behind us, held up by dad as she cried, grief trying to pull her bones to the ground.

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“Please, Lorna. Please don’t make this worse than it needs to be. Wren deserves that at least.”

I saw Tommy and his momma in the crowd. Both were blank-faced and pointing, even when I caught Tommy’s eye. His momma’s wedding ring flashed on her finger, still there even after all these years. I felt a hand slowly slide into my own, knotting our fingers together. Me and my mother walked into the lake together. The water was cool around my waist as we stood facing each other, me in my ratty t-shirt and her in her sweatpants. She smiled, bottom lip held fast by her teeth to stop the shaking as the tears kept coming. She held my face in her hands a moment, staring into the green of my eyes we both shared, same as Gramma. Same as Lyla. I had none of my daddy’s brown-eyed ways about me, just that strange light green. Momma cradled me a moment in the water and dipped me low.

The lake rushed over my head, cool green and soothing, like fingers running through my hair. I thought I could hear singing, soft and half-drowned sounds about apple trees and murdered lovers. And suddenly I understood everything about everyone in town. It was like the lights turning on after being born in the dark, terrifying and brilliant all at the same time. I knew why Tommy’s daddy swam into the lake. I knew why Jonah drank at home alone on his twin size mattress. I knew why Beth’s parents had divorced when she was small. I knew what the preacher really did on Sunday nights at the strip club in the next town over. I knew why the girl that sat behind me in math had hidden scars all the way up both of her legs from ankle to hipbone. I knew that Lyla had known she was going to die the last time I saw her. I knew every story and addiction and sin from the people that had raised me, the people I’d grown up with, every dirty thing behind every closed door, every unsung act of kindness and salvation, beatings and bruises and love, so much love, all wrapped up in hundreds of heartbeats from my neighbors and friends and the strangers I’d pass on the streets of our town every day.

My head broke the surface of the water and I knew what was really between my legs, that when my momma had felt that first kick in her stomach like all the women in our family she had known what would happen, had felt that low pain in her back teeth that I would be born a girl, green-eyed and raised to be swallowed by the lake. So she and my daddy had made a decision, to raise me safely, to protect me from the thing that kept our town’s blood flowing. I saw my whole life around me as I went under again, every rule they’d made, every passing piece of advice that was carefully constructed to keep my reality intact. A secret my parents had carried around with them for fourteen summers. But you can’t hide from nature.

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I felt it then, the thing under the lake, older than anything up on the land, with our fragile bones and thin minds, our Gods and our houses, somewhere deep within the water. I felt it calling me, tugging at my ribs and lungs. I started to wade out into the deeper water, the lake slowly rising up to my ribs. My mother made me when I grew inside her, and as I left my mother behind, I forgave her. I forgave my daddy for not fighting what was inevitable. I forgave my uncles and aunties, the people my little cousins would grow up to be. I forgave my Gramps for the rage and the grief that had got the better of him. I forgave my Gramma for not telling me sooner. I forgave everyone in the whole damn town standing up on the lakeside watching me go, all the terrible and beautiful things they would do and had done throughout their long, little lives. The lake reached up to my jaw and started filling my mouth, cool against my tongue. I felt the trees shift in the dirt, felt the chain-link fences in the backyards swaying, felt the bends in the roads and the fruit as it grew. I felt everything and I knew everything. I heard Lyla’s voice calling me from the other side, through the mist. I imagined her red hair floating on the lake surface, like blood, or strange flowers.

“Swim, Wren. You gotta swim.”

And so I did.


Credit: Maddie Kate (a.k.a. Coney-IslandQueen) (Reddit)


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